Opinion: Perspective – my thoughts on the Liberal Democrat conference

Oblivion; rebellion; split; tension. Words that the media reporting on the recent Lib Dem conference – and gosh weren’t there a lot of cameras, reporters and microphones present? – used both before and during the last few days in Liverpool – and crucially, words that were largely conspicuous by their absence inside the arena. Not a surprise given that large parts of the media, and the pubic too perhaps, is still coping with having a democratic, pluralist party at the heart of government. My word of the week, in contrast is perspective – and here’s why.

Paul Reynolds has written about how conference was subtly different this year, what with policy debates in the main hall and on the fringe no longer in the abstract and esoteric but in the concrete, the here and now. My impression was of a difference in perspective too – the perspective of government, of coalition, of real national power – all new to Lib Dems.

But for me, the sense in which ‘perspective’ is my word of the week came more from the need I felt during many of the fringe meetings, motion debates and consultative sessions to place proceedings in some kind of context. It felt great that Conference reaffirmed its independent nature when the votes on free schools and gay marriage went through; great to see Lib Dems asserting their democratic views, but when put in perspective – both are unlikely to cause a reversal of actual coalition policy – the uplifting sense of having voted for the right thing was tempered. Not wiped out, just diluted somewhat.

And yet. When Vince Cable spoke of reforming capitalism so that it served everyone’s needs, he wasn’t just being populist, nor was he playing to the gallery (no matter what the vested interests from the CBI might howl in protest) – placing his speech in perspective means he may well have the ability to drive through reforms resulting in greater pay equity, in more industrial democracy, in greater balance between financialisation and the productive economy. Real power, based on Lib Dem principles; truly exciting.

And of course there are the cuts to come. No question delegates were uneasy at the Labour-bashing in Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg’s set-piece addresses – no doubt either that we as a party need to take a firm stance on what happens if and when reduced public spending sucks demand out from the economy. But even this came with its own dose of perspective for me – as I’ve written before, I’d much rather have Lib Dems fighting for deficit reduction in a way that is least damaging to the most vulnerable, than have a minority Tory government without the countervailing voices we bring to the Cabinet table.

Lastly, there’s the perspective of the broader picture; of the leader’s speech being moved forward to allow Nick to deliver a strong, liberal speech to the UN Summit on Millennium Development Goals; the policies we’re putting forward to ensure this opportunity to transform the economy and raise the capabilities of the worst off is maximised; the implementation of the excellent Green Deal, no longer only a footnote but rather a catalyst for green growth. So yes, there are concerns, yes there will be tough times ahead for the party – but by getting a sense of perspective, we can remind ourselves of our achievements in government and energise ourselves for the challenges that remain.

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